Tibetan human rights advocate Palden Gyatso passes away at the age of 85

Palden Gyatso in 2007. Credit: leomillaezio
Palden Gyatso in 2007. Credit: leomillaezio
Palden Gyatso in 2007. Credit: leomillaezio
30th November 2018

Palden Gyatso was the first Tibetan political prisoner to bring his experiences to the United Nations

The former Tibetan political prisoner, Buddhist monk and human rights defender Palden Gyatso has died. He was 85 years old, or 87 by the Tibetan calendar.

Born in the village of Panam in southern Tibet in 1933, Palden Gyatso would become one of the most well-known and highly respected advocates for Tibetan freedom and human rights, speaking to audiences around the world about the experiences of the Tibetan people under Chinese occupation.  

Palden Gyatso’s advocacy was informed by his own experiences. As an 18 year old, as he was completing his religious education and becoming a fully ordained monk, his country was suffering the immediate effects of the 1950 invasion by China. His opposition to the Chinese Communist Party regime would see him arrested in 1959, the year of the Tibetan Uprising, when he led a protest by a group of fellow monks.

He would spend the next 33 years of his life in prison. During this time he was transported between several Chinese prisons and labour camps and repeatedly subjected to interrogations and physical and mental torture, causing him long-term physical damage.

Following his release in 1992, Palden Gyatso fled Tibet, reaching the Tibetan community in exile in Dharamsala where he lived for the rest of his life. He recounted his experiences in his autobiography, Fire Under The Snow, which has been translated from Tibetan into several languages and was adapted into a 2008 film of the same name.

He also toured extensively to raise awareness of human rights in Tibet, showing audiences the torture instruments that were used on him during his time in prison and addressing the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1995. In December 1998, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he was awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.

In recent months, Palden Gyatso had suffered from liver failure, receiving treatment at the Delek Hospital in McLeod Ganj. He passed away this morning, in the company of a group of fellow monks.

In response to the news of Palden Gyatso’s death, Free Tibet’s research partner, Tibet Watch, composed a message in recognition of his life and legacy:

"Palden Gyatso's life in Tibet, particularly his 33 years of imprisonment and torture was evidence of the brutality of the occupying Chinese regime. Nevertheless, his fearless spirit and bold drive for the Tibetan freedom struggle clearly stood as an example for every Tibetan. Rather than feeling low about your demise, we will be more resilient and step forward along with your spirit."

Free Tibet and Tibet Watch’s Executive Director, Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, also issued a statement:

Palden Gyatso has been an inspiration to the entire Tibet movement for decades. I have no doubt that his strength, resilience and eloquence will continue to motivate campaigners for many years to come.

As the first Tibetan political prisoner to speak before the United Nations, he described the experience as an opportunity not just to tell his own story but to speak for “all Tibetans still in prison and for all Tibetans who had ever been in prison”. In his memoirs he went on to say that ‘the delegates heard only my voice, but behind my voice lay the suffering of the thousands of prisoners who had not survived to bear witness as I have’.

The concept of bearing witness has been at the heart of Tibet Watch’s work since the team was established and is also a strong element in Free Tibet’s work. We try to amplify Tibetan voices and few have spoken as powerfully as Palden Gyatso. When I designed the Tibet Watch website, I put the final paragraph of his book, Fire Under The Snow, on the homepage. For me, it encapsulates why we do what we do for Tibet and why we must continue.

“Oppressors will always deny that they are oppressors. All I can do is bear witness and set down what I saw and heard and what the strange journey of my life has been. Suffering is written now in the valleys and mountains of Tibet. Every village and monastery in the Land of Snows has its own stories of the cruelty inflicted on our people. And that suffering will go on until the day Tibet is Free.”

Palden Gyatso will be sorely missed but we can take comfort in knowing that his spirit is now free. And one day it will rest in the free Tibet that he fought for.